(THE TENNESSEAN) Gay couples who married in other states but live in Tennessee are running into a fresh legal hurdle — how to get their names changed on driver's licenses.
For straight couples, it's a matter of going to the nearest license service center with a copy of their marriage certificate and their current driver's license.
But while the federal government recognizes same-sex marriages for the purposes of ID, Tennessee does not. Its legislators and voters strongly oppose same-sex marriage, banning it first in state statute and then, by a majority vote, in the state constitution.
When gay husbands and wives show up at Tennessee driver's license stations with marriage certificates and freshly minted Social Security cards in their married names, they're turned away — with a quote from the state constitution and an admonition to come back with a court order.
It's one more example of a swiftly changing social landscape prompted by the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in June that overturned Defense of Marriage Act provisions. That ruling opened the door to several federal recognitions for same-sex married couples and for conflicts with state law — disputes the state will have to defend in court, supporters of same-sex marriage vow. Attorneys have been recruiting potential couples for a lawsuit since the DOMA ruling.
There are two potential legal arguments, said Steven Mulroy, a University of Memphis law professor specializing in civil liberties. One is that the Tennessee ban violates the U.S. Constitution's equal protection clause — state laws can't discriminate. The other is that it violates the constitution's full faith and credit clause, which says states must respect the judgment of other states.
As more Tennessee couples travel to New York, California and 11 other states, plus Washington, D.C., to legalize their unions, frustrations over roadblocks at home are increasing.
People can use their marriage certificates to change their names on various forms of federal ID, such as Social Security cards and passports. They're easily using married names on credit cards and other financial documents. But when they go to change them on their driver's license or other state documents, their marriage certificates aren't enough.
"I went into Cookeville for my new Social Security card using my marriage certificate, and they said I should have it in four days to two weeks," said Byrdstown resident Neil Stovall, who wants to become Neil Irby after his Aug. 17 wedding in Niagara Falls, N.Y., to Harry Irby. "But what about the name on my driver's license? My concealed handgun carry permit? To me, they're denying me my constitutional right to happiness. The state government seems to have a problem with it when no one else does."
Rockford resident Gwen Castro, who is Gwen Schablik on her New York marriage certificate, went to three driver's license centers in Knox and Blount counties hoping to find a sympathetic worker the way a friend had. She didn't.
"At that point, the rejection had gotten to me," she said. "I went outside. I was just crying. My wife never came in with me, she was waiting in the car because we didn't want to draw any attention."
It's impossible to count how many gay couples marry elsewhere and make their homes in Tennessee, but a University of California, Los Angeles study of 2010 census data puts the figure near 2,000. The number could be significantly higher with the DOMA ruling and more states granting same-sex marriages.
Knox County Circuit Judge Harold Wimberly said he's not seeing an uptick in legal name change requests, but it's usually a quick process that ranges between $150 and $200 for people who represent themselves. "Name changes are no burden on us," he said. "Of all the things (applicants) consider, the biggest thing to consider is that you'll have to pay money."
Paying court costs
Without a driver's license name that agreed with the one on his Social Security card, Oak Ridge resident Jeremy May — who married his husband two years ago in Washington, D.C. — wasn't able to take a drug test for a much-needed job working with children with autism. He was turned away from the license bureau in Clinton, Tenn., Tuesday when he went in with his marriage certificate.
By Thursday, he'd filled out paperwork for a legal name change and filed it at the Anderson County courthouse for $179.50. By 10 a.m. Friday, May had already successfully represented himself in a five-minute appearance before a judge, received his court-ordered name change and gone back to the license bureau, where the same employee he encountered before tried to reject him even with the order. A co-worker corrected the man, and May had his temporary driver's license a few minutes later.
The office manager referred all questions to the state Department of Safety and Homeland Security, which oversees driver's license centers.
Michael Hogan, the director of driver's license issuance, said there's a misconception that Social Security cards are a primary form of identification. They're not, he said.
Names on passports can be changed with same-sex marriage certificates, and passports are considered a primary form of ID at Tennessee license centers, but they're irrelevant to name changes, Hogan said.
The issue with driver's licenses is just one more reminder that same-sex couples' marriages are unequal in Tennessee, said Chris Sanders, executive director of the Tennessee Equality Project.
He's helping to gather potential plaintiffs against the state over this issue and others. He's also hearing reports of friendly license center employees accepting same-sex marriage certificates — stories couples don't want to share publicly for fear their new licenses will be called back.
"The system we have is untenable because couples are changing all kinds of other federal documents and being given inconsistent guidance in Tennessee," Sanders said.
"The short-term fix is for couples to go to court to get a name change. And the longer-term fix is for us to go to court and challenge the marriage amendment, which is what we're doing."